Sitting outside Inman Perk Coffee on the downtown Gainesville square, Felix Zuñiga scrolled through his Instagram messages, all the way to the beginning of his conversations with former Atlanta United forward Yamil Asad in early 2017.
That’s when Zuñiga first went out on a limb, sending a bit of a fan message to a Major League Soccer player about cutting his hair.
As a local barber working at Ivan Dominican Barbershop, he honestly didn’t expect a response.
Then one came: a generic “thank you” of sorts. That response turned into more conversation on Instagram until the night before a match when Asad was at a Marriott hotel in Atlanta with the rest of the team, in need of a cut the next morning.
Zuñiga didn’t hesitate and agreed to be at the hotel the next morning, just hours before the team planned to leave for its 3 p.m. kickoff.
“I was stoked about seeing all these players in the lobby,” Zuñiga said. “I went up from the lobby to the room with the players in the elevator, but I kept it cool.”
Zuñiga has turned into the go-to barber for many Atlanta United players — he’s the only one who cuts at the team’s training ground in Marietta each week and makes house calls whenever and wherever the team, which just won the MLS Cup on Dec. 8, needs him.
That day, Asad, forward Hector “Tito” Villalba and midfielder Miguel Almirón needed him. So he was there in the hotel bathroom, giving them a cut before the team played D.C. United.
He’s had the likes of forward Josef Martinez and former head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino in the chair, too, each one trusting him with one of their most prized possessions: their hair.
“They really care a lot about how they look,” Zuñiga said.
He said it’s partly about pride and partly about being on TV. The players want to make sure their cuts are right and each hair is in place, even while running around on the pitch. That’s why every Wednesday during the season, Zuñiga drives to the facility, armed with a barber’s suitcase full of clippers, scissors, a straight razor, blow dryer, neck strips, hair gels and combs in the back seat.
He usually grabs a cup of coffee, waits to be waved back to the shop, sets up and sits tight until whoever needs a cut walks through the door.
“The Hispanics, they get it weekly no matter what,” Zuñiga said. “Then the other guys, they get it every two weeks. They don’t get it every week.”
When he hears the loud music in the locker room, blaring from Almirón’s large bluetooth speaker, he knows it’s almost time to start cutting.
Villalba’s hair is the hardest to deal with. It’s not thin or thick, it’s coarse and something Zuñiga’s not used to. It takes about 35 minutes to cut Villalba — much longer than most people. And it doesn’t help that Villalba is the most picky, too.
“He’s really, really precise,” Zuñiga said, laughing. “It has to be a certain length.”
It can be a demanding job, cutting hair for professional athletes who, as Atlanta United has risen in the ranks of MLS, have become fixtures around the state and nation.
“I was the most nervous to cut Miguel’s because he’s one of the stars of the team,” Zuñiga said. “I mean, Josef Martinez is a star, but his hair is more common as in the Hispanic culture.”
Most players get the same kind of cut, which makes things a little easier on Zuñiga.
“They all get a skin fade,” Zuñiga said. “Some of them like it low, some of them like it medium, some of them like it high. Like (defender Franco) Escobar, he likes it super high.”
Though the players have a few standard cuts, Zuñiga has had his own effect on the team — helping to shape new, signature looks.
Take Almirón for example: He used to have longer hair, slicked back on top and short on the sides. Zuñiga is the one who shaved it off into what it is now, essentially a buzz cut all over.
Then there’s midfielder Andrew Carleton, who used to have shorter hair, but has grown it out. Now, all he needs is a shape up, trimming the ends and keeping up with the beard.
For the man behind the looks of Atlanta United, it was a humble start in Gainesville.
It was his high school friend David Ceja — whose hair he still cuts today — who first sat in a chair at Zuñiga’s home when he was 17 years old.
“I started cutting him and from there it escalated,” Zuñiga said.
He added other neighborhood friends and people from school to his chair because “being in high school, you always want to have a fresh cut. You always want to look sharp,” he said.
Zuñiga learned more, little by little, through Youtube videos and practice until he got a job at Hair Expressions, a salon in Gainesville. He fine-tuned his scissor work there and then went on to Gwinnett Barber Institute.
And he plugged away in Gainesville, working as a general barber until early 2017, when he struck up his fated conversation with Asad on Instagram.
Now, as Zuñiga watches each match, and especially the championship earlier this month, he said it’s sometimes emotional knowing all the work he’s put into the profession that’s gotten him to where he is now.
“I always told my wife, (Stephanie), ‘One day I’m going to get to cut a professional soccer player,’” Zuñiga said. “We always prayed about it.”
No matter how emotional it is when he’s watching or how hard he tries to imagine they’re just a normal person sitting in the chair, he still gets nervous when the nylon cape goes on.
Nervous, stressful, demanding — none of it matters to Zuñiga, who said he’s thankful each and every time a player sits in his chair because it allows him the chance to see his prayers answered.
He said people sometimes ask him how it feels and what it’s like cutting for Atlanta United, and he really doesn’t have an answer. All he can say is, “I just can’t explain it.”
Back at Ivan Dominican Barbershop in Gainesville, an Atlanta United flag hangs above the mirror where he works. Below it, an Atlanta United sticker. And below that, a photo of Zuñiga with the three players who started it all.
“I’m just thankful,” Zuñiga said. “Every day I’m thankful.”